Celebrated or Not, Mediocrity Won’t Cut It

Not failure, but low aim is sin.”–Benjamin E. Mays, clergyman, educator, and legendary Morehouse College president

We have an exceptional new bunch of interns at Black Enterprise every summer, and this year was no exception. They are always smart, eager, hard-working students who exemplify the best of their generation. Over the years, we’ve been impressed enough to hire more than a few of them (Small Business Editor Tennille M. Robinson, part of the 2005 internship class, comes to mind) and we’ve happily benefited from their dedication.

But while many of us–young and, like me, less young–continue to celebrate and uphold this universal standard of excellence, too many of us do not. In fact, too many of us have joined in the growing number that actually celebrates ignorance, ill-preparedness, disrespectfulness, and mediocrity. To say that I find this discouraging is a gross understatement. It’s downright shameful and threatens to corrupt all the progress we’ve made over the 40 years since I founded Black Enterprise.

Now, before you dismiss this as a generational issue, let me be clear: a commitment to the pursuit of excellence is not old-school! Excellence is not age-, gender- or race-specific. It has nothing to do with what country or neighborhood you come from, what schools you went to, how much money is in your bank account, or what you do for a living.

Excellence is a personal code of conduct that demands that, every day, you strive to do better, know more, and try harder than you did the day before. It’s a process, not some pinnacle you reach. It’s a way of life that’s guaranteed to breed not just professional success, but the character builders–pride, dignity, knowledge, integrity, self-respect–that engender respect from others, and more importantly, respect for self.

Excellence has little to do with what everybody else seems to be doing and everything to do with who you are today and who you aspire to be tomorrow. It demands that you mature and improve continually, because no matter how high you go, the bar keeps getting higher and it’s you who’s pushing it up.

It’s no exaggeration to note that the pursuit of excellence has fueled the world’s progress since the beginning of time, which is why it’s so distressing to watch us shrink from that goal. What has become of us when we ostracize academic excellence and celebrate ignorant reality TV?

Closer to home, the mediocrity embraced by too many of our young men is equaled only by the willingness of too many of our young women to accept and even reward it. Increasingly, the line between adult and adolescent behavior is blurred; teenagers seem to reach physical maturity more rapidly than ever, while the standard of emotional maturity for adults seems to be falling just as rapidly. One horrifying result: the fundamental understanding of the pursuit of excellence as necessary to our freedom, equality, and empowerment as black Americans seems to have been replaced by a single question: How low can we go?

When did we allow our goals and dreams to become so compromised, so downright twisted? How can we expect to excel as a nation, and as a people, when we increasingly celebrate dysfunctional and anti-social behavior, rather than the many fine models of achievement deserving of the spotlight? The answer is: we can’t. No matter how much it is celebrated by media and the masses, mediocrity–especially for African Americans–just won’t cut it.

We must revere and doggedly pursue high standards in every area of our lives. We must model it for our children, in our business dealings, and professional pursuits. We must demand it of our leaders, of our peers, and our young people. We must celebrate it in our homes, in our schools, in our houses of worship, and corporations. We must re-establish our relationship with true excellence.

Earl G. Graves Sr. is the founder, chairman and publisher of Black Enterprise.